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On Developing Holy Envy

A TIO Review

On Developing Holy Envy

by Nancy Fuchs Kreimer

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2019)


A friend of mine took a course in fiction writing and was advised that a good novel needed a plot with a tension at its heart: a problem that would keep the reader engaged until its resolution at the book’s end. At first glance, Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest publication fits that bill. A beloved Christian writer and ordained Episcopal priest, winner of multiple accolades and awards for her writing and preaching, begins to find God in the faith and practices of others, develops a serious problem looking Christianity “in the eye,” and wonders how she can reconcile what she has come to know as a “spiritual wanderer” with her place in her own community and tradition. She almost loses her faith, but by the end of the book, she figures it out. Spoiler alert: She is still a Christian, “born again” within her own tradition.

In fact, the book Taylor wrote is not that book. It is a far better and subtler one. It rather fits advice my wrriting friend received when she moved to a different adviser. “Your book will work if the reader cares deeply about the main character.” Because Taylor is a complex and nuanced guide, we care about her and her ideas from beginning to end. The book is studded with beautifully crafted stories of interfaith encounter – the author’s own and those of her students. We gain insights into the joys and perils of religious boundary crossing, along with luminous, memorable ways of speaking about what Professor Diana Eck has called “the spiritual adventure of our time.”

As Taylor herself explains near the end of the book, she is not simply a “good Christian” who almost loses her faith because of her encounter with other traditions. She is, and has been for a long time, a person whose position in her own community is – in the words of Father Richard Rohr – on the edge of the inside. That means she has long stood at the boundary, neither at the core of the faithful and nor among the rebels who hurl critique from outside. As she views her Christian faith, she is “free of its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in new and creative ways.”

Photo:    Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

When the book begins, Taylor has left her work as a pastor in the Episcopal Church and begun teaching world religions at a small, Christian college in northeast Georgia. Among the delights of this book is her recounting how the course changed over 20 years from reliance on a textbook with “glossy pictures of Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem and Buddhist monks in Thailand” to a lively encounter with the diversity of multifaith America through fieldtrips to “an Atlanta I did not know existed,” just 75 miles away. Today, Taylor drives her students in the college van to synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, and more. Our country is changing, Atlanta is changing, and Taylor, along with her students, is changing too. Having left the Episcopal pastorate spiritually “dry as a bone,” she finds in other faiths new buckets to dip into the well of living water. (Taylor is a master of metaphor.)

Taylor credits Krister Stendahl (1921-2008), New Testament scholar and former dean of Harvard Divinity School, who later became Bishop of Stockholm, with naming this experience. It is familiar to many of us who explore religious traditions not our own. In an interview with Yehezkel Landau the year before he died, Stendahl answered a question about leadership by saying “I would apply the same rules … that I often do for effective interfaith dialogue: let the other define herself (“Don’t think you know the other without listening”); compare equal to equal (not my positive qualities to the negative ones of the other); and find beauty in the other so as to develop “holy envy.”

Taylor explores the various forms “holy envy” can take – from the helpful nudge to rediscover similar gifts in one’s own tradition, to the not-so-salutary practice she calls “spiritual shoplifting.” Always willing to use herself as the cautionary example, Taylor describes how she was tempted to “poach” other traditions, memorably referencing her “fingers getting a little twitchy” when she sees a nice Tibetan bell in a store window. She doesn’t fully sort out how one knows the difference between appropriate borrowing and one that transgresses the integrity of the other’s tradition. That is because no easy answers are available. She raises the questions with integrity, tells marvelous stories of her own and others’ explorations in border crossings to show how a healthy dose of an other’s perspective can make one a better practitioner of one’s own faith. In fact, she argues that in today’s world, and perhaps especially for Christians, it is required.

She knows that she is part of a tradition that has been “the biggest and the loudest” for a long time and that blindness easily creeps in. What do we do when we learn to see the shadow side of our traditions that, as Taylor so beautifully points out, usually are seen best from behind – by others? She offers an exemplary tale involving herself. With remarkable candor, she reports how ten years into her career as a pastor, she received a letter from a Jewish psychiatrist pointing out how she was – quite unaware – perpetuating the New Testament memes disparaging the Judaism of Jesus’ time. She confesses that she never imagined how the phrase “righteousness of the Pharisees” could sound to Jews, today’s heirs of the Pharisees. Needless to say, Taylor changed the way she told the multiple stories of the New Testament that have for centuries kept alive theological anti-Judaism.

Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Taylor knows from the start of her interfaith journey that Christian truths are not absolute. In her view of religion, beliefs are less important than how people treat one another She writes about religions (including her own) as “treasure chests of stories, songs, rituals, and ways of life that have been handed down for millennia – not covered in dust but evolving all the way – so that each new generation has something to choose from when it is time to ask the big questions about life.” Yet she continues to wrestle with her own Christianity’s claims to universal salvation for all. She notices more than ever how evangelism may not land quite as graciously as it is intended. Given her understanding of religion as multivocal and evolving, it seems clear that the job is there to be done.

Taylor does her own part in digging out some of the treasures in Christianity’s chest, specifically texts in the New Testament that can be helped along in their evolution to be robust guides for the multifaith world of today. She does this through careful and generous homiletic work with some classic stories of Jesus. Rereading these tales through her preaching, one can begin to imagine an argument for Christian religious pluralism based not only on post-enlightenment philosophy like John Hicks, but also deeply rooted in Scripture. She makes a good case for Jesus as a teacher who recognized the truths in other religious paths; following him does not necessitate disparaging those who do not. She readily admits that her version of Christian teaching is a mosaic and that other Christians might put together a different picture. Given that she is a widely respected preacher, I hope that her interpretive work will reach many ears.

Let me return to Bishop Stendahl’s “holy envy” teaching to offer a few small quibbles. As you might expect, they are all related to the treatment of Judaism in this book, as it is the only tradition about which I feel comfortable offering critiques. Taylor’s handling of Judaism is extraordinary and altogether admirable, so these comments are truly picayune. Occasionally Taylor gets in a bit of trouble with Stendahl’s rules 1 and 2. It is understandable that, given the disparity of privilege in our culture between Christians and Jews, Taylor would err heavily on seeing the positive qualities of Judaism and the negative ones of her own tradition. That actually feels appropriate.

As for letting people define themselves, I appreciate that Taylor brought her students to the Reform Temple in Atlanta, that she gave lots of space to Shlomo, an unusual Piedmont student with a unique Jewish pedigree and practice, and showing her class a photo montage of their favorite celebrities who are Jewish, even including Elvis Presley, who had a Jewish mother. (Who knew?) While the class had to absorb the complexity of Jews like Jon Stewart, who are secular Jews, I would have loved them to also learn about Jews like some of my rabbinical students who are deeply devoted to a religious Jewish life and also politically engaged in Palestinian solidarity work. And a personal peeve: perhaps a little less emphasis in the curriculum on kosher food!

To be fair, Taylor makes it clear that “if you know one Jew, you know … one Jew.” She acknowledges that it is much easier to see the faults in her own tradition than in others. She also says, toward the end of the book, that she plans to continue visiting her faith neighbors “without expecting them to exemplify their faith any better than I exemplify mine.”

Taylor is not a simplistic thinker. She is even willing to say when she has encountered an interfaith moment about which she is still unsure. At a gathering of Jews and Christians, the participants enjoyed a Jewish service followed by a quick stage transformation and a Christian offering of communion. Taylor found herself standing next to her Orthodox Jewish colleague. The Christian officiant made it clear that all were welcome, even as the Jew made it clear to Taylor that he was planning to witness but not partake.

Photo:   MaxPixel

Photo: MaxPixel

Taylor did the same. She writes, “What had I just done? Why had I done it?” She knew that it was possible for the two of them to stand together in their difference, that her Jewish colleague did not expect that gesture from her. And here is the best part. Even in telling the story, Taylor writes “I still do not know whether I failed Christianity that night or passed.” What she does know is that there was no theology manual to consult in that moment, only her relationship with the human being standing next to her.

In this way, Taylor’s life embodies her core message. Being a religious person requires a willingness to not know, along with a love of other human beings. Perhaps one might say humility coupled with kindness. We are not God, so we don’t know how God most wants to be worshipped. We have a better idea how people want to be treated. We are not commanded to love our religions. We are commanded to love our neighbors. This is truly wise “Torah,” and I look forward to sharing it and this beautiful book with others.  

 Header Photo: webtreats, C.c. 2.0